Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Haunting of Hill House - The Best Thing on Netflix?

Scott D. Parker

I never saw this show coming and it totally blew me away.

We live in a golden age of content, especially television content. There is just so much that we can’t realistically be expected to watch it all. Even as an avid Netflix consumer, I didn’t know the re-imagined version of “The Haunting of Hill House” was even a thing. My wife, did, however. She read about it in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and then it popped up on her Netflix account. We had just finished Amazon’s brilliant "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," it was October, so why not? It was a short, 10-episode series--movie, really--so it wouldn’t take up too much time if it proved to be bad or if I proved indifferent.

All I needed was the first episode.

Specifically, the last minute or so. Well, no, let me backtrack: the steller cast, the adept direction, and the fantastic writing of the first episode got me to swallow the hook. The last couple of minutes set the hook. “I’m in,” were the words out of my mouth as soon as the credits rolled. Truth be told, I was already in.

The Haunting of Hill House, as re-imagined by director/writer Mike Flanagan, tells the story of the Crain family in two different phases of their lives. In flashbacks, we see Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas; yes, that Henry Thomas) and his wife, Olivia (Carla Gugino) move into Hill House with their five children. In the present day, the children are now adults, Hugh is now played by Timothy Hutton, and Olivia isn’t around. The central mystery of the show is what happened to her and to the family at Hill House.

Taking his cue from any number of modern examples of non-linear storytelling, director Flanagan expertly weaves in and out of both times, revealing just enough here while intentionally not showing you something there. I knew what he was doing, and I didn’t care. I became so enthralled in the story and the way it was presented that I came close to the desire to binge it all. The closest we got was two separate days of two episodes each. Most of the time, however, it was an episode per day. But the beauty of watching the show in this manner was the ability to mull over the story and the characters.

And mull it over I did. Numerous nights and even throughout the days, snippets of the show would float back into my head. My wife and I discussed various aspects of the show, and I even played the age-old game of trying to guess what was going to happen next.  Thankfully, I was wrong on nearly everything except one crucial aspect. And, no, I can’t tell you what it was because it is fundamental to the story. (see below)

Billed as a horror show, it lives up to that reputation. Yes, there are jump scares. Of course there are jump scares. But, for me, Hill House was less a horror show than a supernatural suspense, eerie type show. There were some moments in the show that I was glad I was watching in the day time. And most of those are quiet moments you didn’t see coming.

Flanagan--whose work I don’t know--did a marvelous job at directing and pacing. I’m no film geek, but even I realized some of the tricks he used to great effect. One was the just-out-of-range blurring of a background character. He did this often, and it really worked well. Camera movement was pitch perfect. Probably the thing getting the most buzz is episode 6, “Two Storms.” The story content is stellar and pivotal to the series, but the direction is what will earn this episode award nominations. Even as we watched it, we could tell it was shot in multiple long-takes, with the camera moving this way and that, revealing a nothingness behind one character in one second only to reveal something behind the very same character when the camera pulls around again. Excellent work.

An excellent director with an excellent story can only get you so far. If you don’t have excellent actors, you get something sub par. The casing director of Hill House needs an award today. Let’s start with Henry Thomas. Seeing as I didn’t look up or know anything about this show ahead of time, it was during the first episode I realized he was the “E.T.” kid. I haven’t followed his career at all, but man did he deliver in the various flashback scenes. The chemistry Thomas has with Gugino and the five child actors is so good, you’d think they were a real family. Speaking of Gugino, she had the difficult task of conveying Olivia as a loving mother and wife, but as someone also haunted by things not often visible, sometimes even in the same scene. When she was comforting a scared child, she was honest and sincere. When she was facing something else, she was just as scared as you were in that moment.

In any movie starring kids, you might get less-than-good actors who deliver less-than-good performances. The five children--especially Julian Hilliard (young Luke) and McKenna Grace (as young Theodora)--gelled on screen as if they were truly siblings. They really inhabited their characters well. Not to be outdone, the adult actors playing these characters also knocked it out of the park. There was one scene in particular where Theodora--who has a special talent--does the thing she does to use her talent (like how I’m obfuscating?). With modern technology and CGI chicanery, Flanagan could have conjured up anything for a scary moment. Instead, he lets Kate Siegel’s face be centered on the screen. When she “sees” what she sees, Siegel screams a scream so bloodcurdling your mind is the thing conjuring up the horror. So well done.

I questioned why Flanagan didn’t just put Henry Thomas in older make up but rather cast Timothy Hutton as the older Hugh. Visually, the two actors are not too far off, and stylistically, they created mannerisms for Hugh each actor mimicked. But in keeping with the obvious recasting of the kids, the choice for a second actor for Hugh was a good one. I’m not too familiar with Hutton’s work, but as the series propelled itself to the end, his gravitas carried his scenes and I was ultimately satisfied with both actors playing the same part.

Oh, one other thing about the cast: each one of them get what I call a “Robert Shaw in Jaws” moment. You know the scene in Jaws where Shaw, as Quint, tells the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the sharks. Best dang scene in the movie. Well, the adults get their version, but none was better than of Robert Longstreet as caretaker Horace Dudley. When he says what he says in the manner he does it, Flanagan keeps the camera on Longstreet. The actor delivers that story with so much depth and emotion that I immediately called it a “Robert Shaw in Jaws” moment. Incredible that a piece of a show like this by a side character could be so compelling.

I could go on and on, but I'm going to halt here. I’ve seen some great stuff this year, but The Haunting of Hill House is easily in the Top 3, maybe even Top 2. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

P.S., I’m stopping the main review here. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop and watch then return. For those of y’all who want to continue, you’ve been warned.

The one aspect of the show I did see coming was Episode 5, “The Bent Neck Lady.” At that moment, I nearly thought the secret of the house was an alternate dimension.

What I didn’t see coming was the ending.

Holy moley. Who in the world saw it coming? Who in the world would have predicted the ending of a showed billed as a horror show could have such a genuinely emotional ending? I don’t know about y’all, but I was bawling my eyes out when Hugh--first as Hutton then as Thomas--talked to Steve and explained the situation. He told his son why and how the house needed to be saved. And then the instant transition from Hutton to Thomas? Lost it. My wife did, too. Maybe it’s my age, maybe I’m just so emotional about family, but The Haunting of Hill House delivered not only genuine scares, creeps, and thrills, but also a deep, heartfelt emotionally resonant ending. I couldn’t be happier about it.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

7 minutes with - Episode 10

Welcome to the tenth episode of “7 Minutes With,” brought to you by Hosted by Steve Weddle.
Jedidiah Ayres brings his movie picks, Holly West chats about the small screen, and Chris Holm takes the week off. We are joined by blues musician Delta Ondine to talk about music.
Delta Ondine talks to us about:
Workout time: No Mercy in this Land, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite title track; Cognac, Buddy Guy. The Blues is Alive and Well (Keith Richards and Jeff Beck play on this one)
In the Car: Muddy Waters, Still a Fool, AND the whole "His Best 1947 to `1955" (Chess); The Who, Love Rein O'er me. While You Cook: here's where I mention me. It's true :) Also--"Not the Same Old Blues Crap" compilations from Fat Possum, which really really rock it.
Dance-it-out Time (after the dog and/or kids are in bed and maybe you drank too much): Mountains, Extended 45 LP, Prince and the Revolution.
Delta Ondine: and

Jedidiah Ayres ( talks to us about 99 Homes, Dirty Pretty Things, and Sweet Virginia, not in that order.…ginia-review.html
And Holly West ( talks about Barry and Doctor Who and we talk a little about American Vandal.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Prepping for Writers, and is working in Journalism better than an MFA?

My writer go-bag contains 2 each of my books, pens, bookmarks, giveaways, a credit card phone attachment, a name tag, business cards, and breath mints. I keep it in the trunk of my car, next to the air compressor, jumper cables, first aid kit, old coat, and rain slicker.

No, I'm not preparing for the zombie apocalypse, I just like to be ready for when someone asks, "can you do a reading?"

And it happens a lot. For a relatively new writer, I was surprised at how often. Not only readings, but all kinds of events. Recently my friend Liz Moore, teacher and journalist, asked me to speak to her class at William Paterson University and be interviewed by her students. She gave me some lead time, but I was already prepared. All I needed to do was show up in my work clothes--I have a day job, so I can't lounge around in pajamas--and show up.

As I told the class the only problem with asking a writer to talk about themselves for 20 minutes is getting us to stop. I'll admit, at first I was intimidated. The usual impostor syndrome and "who am I to talk, I've only written four novels" stuff. But then I thought of all the times friends and strangers asked me about writing. They are genuinely interested, because the mythology we've built around it makes it seem mystical and difficult. So I threw the workman lines at them early. This was a journalism class, so it was easy to compare. You don't sit around waiting for inspiration when you're a journalist. You have a deadline, and the story must be done by then, and so many words. It's a job, like putting in a bathroom tile floor in eight hours. You just do it, you don't nibble your grout trowel and try to channel the muse.

And to me, writing is the same way. It can be hard, but once you get your butt in the chair you are infinitely more likely to write than if you are sprawled on the couch berating yourself for bingeing NetFlix. That's Joe Lansdale's advice, to get in the chair. You will usually write something. I also pulled out the immortal Robert B. Parker line about "plumber's block" and tied it into journalism. And I voiced my regrets over not minoring in journalism and interning at a paper, and working at one. With a nice I.T. career, I can write and not have to put beans on the table, but I envy my former journo friends their careers. And I'm not joking. You get great discipline from all that writing, you learn to write quickly with clarity, and you have a strong network of fellow writers and reviewers in the industry.

And now we need journalists more than ever, so it may be more useful than an MFA. If I could turn back time, I know which path I'd choose. Unless I could get into an MFA program run by a writer idol like Annie Dillard, I'd choose journalism every time.

The students asked me good questions. One wanted to know if I approached "inspirational" fiction differently than "entertaining" fiction, and I thought that was a very polite way to frame the literary vs. genre debate. I did not hold back, though I was polite. I said that entertaining someone can inspire them, and escapist fiction is more inspirational than ever. The line between them is fuzzy. A good story is entertaining and inspiring. If you are not inspired by a cathartic genre story, perhaps you have been taught not to be? And likewise, if you demand action in your stories, why? Some of the best genre stories ever written have nearly zero action. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is almost pure exposition. "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch, as well.

Open your mind a little. I tried to be inspiring with my answers, because writing will always be important. It strengthens our empathy, and we can all use more of that.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Pettiness and History

I have a friend who enjoys reading about Roman history, as I do, and the other night while we were talking, we got onto the subject of the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15th in the year 44 BC.  According to the Roman historian Eutropius, sixty or more men, among them many Roman Senators, participated in the stabbing of Caesar on the Roman Senate steps.  The conspirators stabbed Caesar 23 times, but historian Suetonius reports that a doctor who did an autopsy on Caesar established that only one of the stab wounds was fatal. This was the second wound, a chest puncture that pierced his aorta.  Here we have the first known post-mortem report in history, by the way, Roman CSI in action.  The Roman Grissom said that Caesar's death was mostly due to loss of blood from all the wounds.

Anyone who's been assigned Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in middle school or high school knows the basics of this story.  Shakespeare centers the play's action around Brutus.  The conspirators, led primarily by the Senator Cassius, try to persuade Brutus to join their assassination plot.  After much internal debate and struggle, Brutus joins.  Along with the others, he attacks and kills Caesar to help save Rome from the prospective abuses of power Caesar might unleash on Rome.  Adored by the populace, Caesar is on the verge of becoming king, and Caesar's killing, at least from Brutus' perspective, is an act intended to save the republic, Rome's freedom.

What about Cassius, though?  While Brutus may be motivated by what he considers patriotism, Cassius seems driven by envy of Caesar and pure ambition.  But does the picture of Cassius as presented by Shakespeare bear any resemblance to historical fact? This is what my friend was getting at when he asked me during our talk, "Do you know why Caesar was killed?"

Strange question.  And I answered, "Not beyond the usual. To save the republic supposedly."

To which my friend said that it had to do with lions.


Yes, lions.

Gaius Cassius Longinus

During a military campaign in Africa, Cassius had come into the possession of some lions. To own lions was a very prestigious thing at the time, and at a certain point, Caesar, exercising his position of power above Cassius, simply appropriated the lions because he wanted them for himself.  This infuriated Cassius, and as Plutarch, the Greek essayist and biographer born in 46 AD writes: Cassius was "a man of violent temper".  Plutarch adds: He was "rather a hater of Caesar on his own private account than a hater of tyranny on public grounds". Cassius was smart enough to know, however, that the conspiracy against Caesar, then forming because of Caesar's rising power, needed Brutus.  Only with Brutus' participation could the plotters have a chance of being seen as legitimate by the Roman populace. To this end, he arranged for certain of the conspirators to write graffiti around Rome in spots where he knew Brutus would pass.  The graffiti said things like, ""O that we had you now, Brutus!" and "O that Brutus were alive!"  Every day at locations where Brutus went to do his work could be found writings that said, "Brutus, are you asleep?" and "You are not really Brutus."  

In the end, of course, the appeals to Brutus worked. But it's odd to think of how such a momentous historical event was decided in part by the petty motivations of one human being with a personal animosity toward another.  You had the grand cause of saving the Roman republic's freedom, and you had a man enraged because the nation's leader took his lions. It's the personal mixing with the political, an aspect of history I've always found fascinating. I even shaped the plot of my last novel around the idea: Jack Waters is the tale of an American guy who gets involved in a Caribbean country's revolution because the leader of the country welshed on a poker debt he owes Waters.  

Freedom fighter or just a guy pissed off he got stiffed?  That's a question a reader might have reading Jack Waters, and it seems like so much of history, in one form or another, has this mix - the elevated blended with the small.  Though you can be sure of one thing: the people driven by petty motivations, by feelings like envy or resentment, along the lines of the Roman Cassius, will, like Cassius, do their best to disguise those motivations and make it seem they're fighting for something noble.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Horror of Truth and Half-Truths

At some point today, I'll be dropping by the Thriller Roundtable to answer the question, “What can thriller writers learn from the horror genre?”

I've had a very strange relationship with horror and every year for the past 11 years Brian has tried to get me to agree to a month of horror in October - primarily watching horror movies.

And every year I've refused.

Until this year.

Why now?

Well, one of the things I needed to understand about my relationship with horror was that it was shaped by the wrong strand of horror. As a teen in the 80s, I grew up when slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were big.

And slasher flicks are definitely not my thing. 

However, there is something very appealing about horror that eluded me until I had a broader exposure to the genre. Horror - like police procedurals and thrillers - strives for the restoration of order. In horror, a protagonist or group of key characters face threat of death from all manner of evil creatures (be it a person who's lost their humanity or some sort of monster or something else) and triumphs. It may not feel like much of a triumph, depending on what they've lost along the way, but they find a way to survive.

What's really interesting is that some prominent horror offerings have recently addressed the fact that at the end of that part of the story, there really isn't a return to order. The life of the protagonist or lives of the core group have been permanently altered.

From the new Halloween movie to The Haunting of Hill House, horror is expanding its reach and exploring the trauma that victims of horror endure.

No matter how many ghosts, goblins, vampires or other types of monsters or fictional beings you throw at them, trauma is very real world. And perhaps by taking a person out of the context of real, day to day normalcy, it's easier to explore. 

As part of our horror marathon, we watched the new Hill House series. I'm not going to give anything away in saying this - it's episode 1 reality.

The older brother, Steve, is an author. And he writes about hauntings ... including what happened at Hill House when he was a child.

And he really pisses the family off by doing so. anything real before you write it...? The things you write about are real,  those people are real their feelings are real,  their pain is real,  but not to you,  is it? Not until you chew it up and you digest it and you've shit it out on a piece of paper,  and even then its a pale imitation at best. 

You take other peoples lives and love and loss and pain and you eat it...  You are an eater. You eat it and you shit it out and then, and only then, is it real for you. 
I found myself thinking about this a lot. Most of his family is so angry with him because of his book. He took something so personal and put it out into the world.

This is often what writers do. They put their truths into stories. And that's often what editors and agents want to see. One of the increasingly common requests I've seen for queries lately is, "Tell me why you're the person to write this story." They want to see that there's a personal connection. They don't mean, "Because I earned an MFA and know how to construct a grammatically correct sentence." They mean, "Because I survived sexual assault" or "Because I grew up with divorced parents" or "Because I have experienced racism" - they're looking for the personal connection to your story. 

There are two things that are more likely to happen when the writer has a personal connection. One is that they may more effectively convey appropriate emotions in the story and a sense of realism that readers connect to. The other is that they're more likely to have topics they can talk about to promote their book.

Now, Steve's story wasn't the most compelling one for me, out of all the survivors, but I did appreciate how the story looked at the personal implications of sharing your truth.

And, however the events of Hill House changed how Steve perceived the events from his childhood, he had written what he believed. 

It was not how others in the family saw things. As we all learned when Robin Williams' character challenged the young men in Dead Poet's Society to stand on their desks, the world looks different when you look at things from a different perspective.

As writers, we face the peculiar balancing act of sharing what is personal and considering how others might feel about those revelations or even if they believe or agree with those alleged truths.

Everything we experience, every relationship we have, are potentially opposing truths. 

Sometimes, those opposing perspectives are the result of listening to lies or suppressing events or knowledge because of an inability to cope with what happened. Sometimes it really is a difference in perspective.

And sometimes, we all say or type things that come off as more of an absolute than we intend, or have an inference that was unintended. I had that experience recently on Facebook, with Brian pointing out to me one single line in a post and its relationship to one specific perspective on the issue. It prompted me to make an amendment.

We don't always get a chance to take things back. Sometimes, we have to leave ourselves room for another person's perspective to alter our own. 

And perhaps we need to take a look at the dust or cracks on our lenses that may be marring or limiting our view and understanding. 

Perhaps that's a caution to us all to be careful what we write on social media and elsewhere. Perhaps most of all it's an opening to talk about something we rarely tackle. As writers, we often process our feelings on the page and that can be therapeutic. However, it can also have a cost ... and we must always remember that things that are not known to us can change our understanding of ourselves and others and things we've experienced.

And sometimes, the popular consensus just boils down to who is more popular. You could be absolutely right and honest in a position or perspective but be ridiculed as a liar if your view opposes someone with a big platform and popularity. And many people are like Steve - they don't really want truth. They just don't want anyone to contradict their interpretation of events.

Be absolutely honest for yourself ... and remember that not everyone may thank you for it.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Little Free Libraries

Sacramento, Calif.
Do you have a library on your block? If so, chances are it’s thanks to Todd Bol. The Wisconsin man built the very first one in 2009 with wood from an old garage door. He stocked it with books and started a movement. Less than 10 years later, there are more than 75,000 Little Free Libraries in 88 countries.
Bol died Thursday at age 62 shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic and then peritoneal cancer.
He was, his brother said, like Johnny Appleseed, “planting these things and keeping them going.”
Minneapolis, Minn.
Bol grew up loving stories, and his favorite ones became the ones people told about the Little Free Libraries they built. Not only do the libraries get people reading, they get neighbors talking to one another, Bol would say. He founded the Little Free Library non-profit in 2012 to help spread his gospel of free access to books and neighborhood togetherness. The organization now also sponsors little libraries in neighborhoods that need them most; puts books in police stations and squad cars through its Kids, Communities & Cops program; and coordinates the Action Book Club, where it suggests community service projects that book clubs or other groups can pair together with a discussion topic.
That’s a whole lot of good to come out of something that started with nothing but some old wood and an idea. And it’s all thanks to Bol, who not only wanted more people to read but actually did something about it. As a thank you, consider a donation to the Little Free Library organization. Or build one yourself. Or stock one with books (I know you have tons of them). Or talk to your neighbor. Make the world a better place. Be the good. Be a Todd Bol. 
 To read the full-length interview the Minneapolis Star Tribune did with Bol, click here.